He may be the self-described “little guy from Verner,” but no one would ever accuse Ben Serre of thinking small.
Serre, who will be the last-ever MP for the Timiskaming-Cochrane federal riding once it merges with Nipissing, reflected on his political career Saturday at the Clarion Resort-Pinewood Park.
Liberals from both ridings milled around as Serre spoke, waiting for the founding meeting of their new association to begin.
Though there’s speculation Serre will seek the Liberal nomination in Nickel Belt, which his brother Gaetan held between 1968 and 1972, his intentions will be made public Wednesday.
“I can tell you, though, I will not be running in Nipissing,” Serre said.
Good people like you
One of 16 children, Serre, 52, said he wasn’t motivated to enter politics through any burning desire.
He ran, instead, at the behest of people in the then Timiskaming riding.
It all started in 1987, Serre said, when a Toronto-based group calling itself the Temagami Wilderness Society wanted the forest in the area turned into a nature reserve.
“That would have meant no Skidoos, and no fishing or hunting,” Serre said.
“Now I’m an angler and a hunter like my father and grandfather, so I was against this and decided to do something about it.”
He started West Nipissing Outdoors—the organization did stop the Temagami Wilderness Society—and began giving media interviews.
“I was on the Don Mark show in Sudbury and he said ‘you know, you should be in politics, we need good people like you,’ and lo and behold the telephone started ringing and I decided to run.”
Lorraine Robazza, of Kirkland Lake, didn’t think Serre stood much of a chance.
“I had run for the Liberals in 1984 and lost and didn’t think he would do any better because I thought I’d done a pretty good job,” said Robazza, who finished 9,000 votes behind PC John MacDougall that year.
“But Ben was a very hard worker, wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer, and was very confident.”
So confident, in fact, Serre drove into Kirkland Lake in 1987 not knowing a soul, but began campaigning anyway.
I will be your MP
Serre said he walked into the Princess Hotel where the deputy mayor and several businessmen were imbibing.
“I said to them ‘my name is Ben Serre and I want to be your MP,’ and they just started to laugh in my face, at me, this little guy from Verner, and said ‘sure Mac, sure Mac,’” Serre said.
One of the businessmen pointed to an Association for the Preservation of English in Canada pin he was wearing.
“So I said ‘just because you’re with the anti-French movement and I’m French, I’m supposed to hate you?’ I said ‘you know what sir I will be your MP one day, and I will represent you as much as anybody else in this riding whether you’re Liberal or not whether you’re francophone or not, whether you hate me or not, because that will be my job,’” Serre said.
“So they looked at each other and said ‘this little guy has got balls.’”
Largest plurality ever
The country went to the polls in 1988 and Serre took on MacDougall, losing by only 946 votes.
In 1993 Serre tried again and, in a constituency that had rarely voted Grit, became the first Liberal and francophone MP ever in the riding’s history, defeating PC Bob Mantha by almost 13,000 votes.
Four years later Serre won his largest plurality ever, defeating PC John Hodgson by 15,694 votes.
The Canadian Alliance saw its candidate Dan Louie lose to Serre in 2000 by 13,563 votes.
“Those were the three biggest majorities the riding has ever known,” Serre said, adding the riding has gone through three incarnations during his tenure: Timiskaming, Timiskaming-Marten River and Timiskaming-Cochrane.
Faith and hope
Serre believes he helped “restore faith and hope" to his riding over the last 10 years.
“When I ran the first time that area was so depressed, both economically and mentally, and I kept pushing and pushing, and we did a lot of stuff,” Serre said.
Part of his rejuvenation plan was to develop a circle tour of visitor attractions.
“It’s 80 to 90 per cent done when you look at things like the Eco Resort, in Elk Lake, the Earlton Zoo, and the Polar Bear Orphanage in Cochrane,” Serre said.
He hopes to see other projects completed including Hockey Heritage North and the Cobalt mining heritage program.
Disservice to democracy
Electoral distribution has spelled the end of Timiskaming-Cochrane, and Serre said the way it was done has been a "disservice" to democracy and Northern Ontario.
“I think we have to revisit the way electoral boundaries are set in this country because they are totally unfair as it is now,” Serre said.
Right now almost 80 per cent of the Liberal national caucus comes from urban centres, Serre said.
“That means we’re under-represented in Ottawa and it’s always a fight to put rural issues on the table because there are so few of us,” Serre said.
“And so we have to fight 10 time harder to get our voices heard.”